Given the fact that John is the thematic gospel, the context of the entire Gospel of John is relevant to the exegesis of this passage. We know that it is thematic because it, unlike the other gospels, has an introduction that summarizes the gospel and introduces several themes. These themes are exemplified throughout the book in excerpts from Jesus' life and dialog that support these themes. There is little else included in the book that does not support the themes, except the historical "connective tissue" required to make the story flow and fit into its historical context.

The closest that one of these themes comes to the subject of unity is in the commandment to love one another. It doesn't get more specific into particular actions or attributes of love, other than the strong implication that we should lay down our lives for each other. So to understand John 17 to be addressing Christian unity would be odd in the context of the entire book of John.

John 17:1

When we consider the context of the prayer itself (all of chapter 17), we see that Jesus immediately gets to the point of His prayer, establishing the subject matter of the immediate context of the "unity" verses in question. He says, in verse 1, "Father, the hour has come; glorify the Son, that the Son may glorify Thee,".

Obviously the hour is the hour, or time, for Him to suffer and die. The Father glorifying the Son, and the Son glorifying the Father has to do with what will be communicated to the world through the death of Jesus. "Glory" is the idea of possessing and displaying greatness, brilliance, beauty, or praiseworthy qualities. Having glory does not necessary mean that that glory is perceived and understood by everyone. To "glorify," is to make that glory that one has, known to others; to manifest it to, or to make it understood by others. This subject, communicating God's character to the world through the death of Jesus, is a theme of the Gospel of John.

John 1:9 says that by coming into the world, Jesus will give light (truth) to all men. John 1:17-18 elaborates on the nature of this truth. Verse 17 states that grace (love) from God was given to mankind in the giving of His law, and that truth was given through that law; but that grace (love) and truth were realized through Jesus. Verse 18 states that no one has ever seen God, but that Jesus, the only begotten God, who is in God the Father's heart (bosom), has explained Him. These are the words that conclude the prologue of the gospel of John; this concept is that important to the gospel.

In His explanation to Nicodemus of how being born again works (or being "born from above," or "born of the Spirit"), Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
(John 3:11-15)

From chapter six, about Jesus being the bread of life, I will excerpt some useful parts in support of this theme.
(Please read the entire chapter on your own.)

"Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal." They said therefore to Him, "What shall we do that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent..." (John 6:27-35)

"For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. (John 6:44-48)

"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (John 6:51)

He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:54-58)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63)

Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

This passage about the Bread of Life tells us that it is what we learn from the Father about the Son that draws us to the Son; and that we learn this by Jesus' dying in obedience to the Father's commandment (John 10:17-18). Our witnessing His sacrifice will influence our hearts toward sanctification (John 8:23-24; 8:28-36).

John 11:4

But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”

Lazarus' death and resurrection resulted in the Father and Son being glorified.

John 12:28

"Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

"and will glorify it again" no doubt refers to Jesus' crucifixion, particularly in light of the explanation that follows. In verse 30, Jesus says that the voice out of Heaven was for their (the multitude's) sakes. In verse 31 He says Satan will be dealt with; and in verse 32 and 33 of chapter 12 it's made plain that "and will glorify it again" referred to His death.

John 13:31-32

Therefore when he had gone out, Jesus *said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately."

These words were spoken just before the crucifixion. There seem to be two distinct events spoken of here. From the verses immediately following, it is undeniable that Jesus is referring to His crucifixion when He says, "Now is the Son of Man glorified." Many other statements in John shed light on the next statement, "and God is glorified in Him." It is God who sent His Son; it is the Father's commandment that Jesus is following; it is God's only begotten Son. Therefore, both the Father and the Son are glorified by Jesus' death.

Verse 32 seems to depict a second event. In the first event, Jesus glorifies the Father (in addition to Himself) by His (Jesus') actions. In the second event, God glorifies Jesus by His (the Father's) actions. This action is contingent on the first one having taken place already, for verse 32 begins with, "if God is glorified in Him." Lastly, we know that this second event will follow the first "immediately." I can imagine no other event that verse 32 could be referring to other than the resurrection. Saying that God will glorify Him immediately also supports the idea that it is a distinct event.

I think it is also reasonable to consider the natural response that people would have to these two events. It may serve as a confirmation of this interpretation to see that these actions have their intended effects. Jesus' willing sacrifice of His own life for the salvation of sinners would naturally evoke a response of the praise of His character ("Now is the Son of Man glorified"), then that glory would also be attributed to God the Father because the Father sent the Son ("and God is glorified in Him"). And the resurrection would naturally evoke a response of praise of God the Father's character because Jesus is dead by human standards and cannot act on His own behalf without the Father. But the act of resurrecting Jesus confirms the truthfulness of all of Jesus' claims to be acting on the Father's behalf; this "testimony" about Jesus glorifies Jesus by the Father's actions ("God will also glorify Him in Himself").

Essentially, what the beginning of Jesus' prayer here in verse 1 is saying is, "Father, it's time, have my life sacrificed, so people will understand that We love them."

John 17:2

Verse 2 elaborates on this thought by giving the reason for His sacrifice, that is, to make provision for eternal life, for all mankind.

John 17:3

Verse 3 defines eternal life as knowing God the Father and Jesus. When we think of eternal life, we think of the clear and simple meaning of the words—a life that does not cease. Here He is not contradicting this meaning, but giving us a deeper understanding of the words themselves. This deeper understanding of the meaning of the word "life" is one of the themes of the Gospel of John.

A study of the use of the word "life" in the Gospel of John (and the other terms related to this idea—"eternal life," "abide," "bread of life," "living water," and "living word"), will reveal the idea of being in a deliberate, dependent, trusting, loving, obedient relationship with God and His Son.1

The sustaining of the life and health of our bodies for all time is a necessary consequence of being in this relationship.

John 17:4

Again, Jesus speaks of doing things that would make the world understand God's love. Throughout the book of John, Jesus makes reference to speaking the words He heard from the Father, and doing what the Father commanded Him.

John 17:5

Again Jesus refers to His crucifixion and the love that is communicated through it. I think it would be a mistake to assume that because He asks the Father to glorify Him now with the glory that He always had with Him before the creation of the world, that He means that God should do this by restoring His metaphysical state to that which He had before being incarnate in flesh. This would ignore the context, not just of the verses immediately surrounding this one, but of the entire Book of John, and, in fact, the entire Bible.

Since Genesis Jesus' death has been anticipated. John's prologue explains that Jesus is to be the light of men by explaining the Father's heart to us (in John 1:18). He has just spoken of the hour of His death, and how that will make possible eternal life for all mankind, because it will allow people to know the Father and the Son as they are. It is a complete non sequitur to say He is now comparing the glory He had before the world was, to the glory He will have after He leaves the world. No, He is comparing the glory He had before the world was to the glory He will have when the world sees that He has the greatest possible love of laying down His life for His friends. He always had this love. The Father knew it. And now the whole world would know it, and He would have, before the whole world, the same glory that He always had with the Father, that is, that there would be the same understanding of His love. The resurrection gives the Father's testimony or witness that all that the Son has done has been from Him, so it establishes the truthfulness of the message, but it is not the message, which is of the unsurpassible love of the Father and Son for us.

John 17:6

"Manifest Thy name" means Jesus showed what God was like. In their culture, "name" was used synonymously with "character;" because the word "name" was not just used to refer to a single proper name given to someone at birth, but also a label someone would use to describe someone else; it was a description of one's character. "His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:7) may be an example of this. Jesus' birth name, and the name He was called in the sense that we use the word, was "Jesus." But all of those other things are things His followers believe to be true about His nature and character.

Another example is when Jesus told us to pray in His name. Of the many instances of prayers being made in the New Testament, we don't have a single instance of someone utterning the words, "in Jesus' name" at the close of a prayer. This is because we are to pray according to His character; we are to pray according to His will, from a sincere heart that is being conformed to His character. The practice of invoking an incantation to the spirit world to secure one's desires comes straight out of paganism. Judaism and Christianity stand in stark contrast to this, from the beginning of God's dealing with mankind, He has been teaching us what He is like, that we might know Him as He is. Jesus is the prophesied fulfillment of that goal, and we are to pray according to that knowledge, having our hearts controlled by that knowledge, and being in a relationship with God based on and trusting in that knowledge of God's love expressed in Jesus' character or "name."

The ones He manifested the Father's loving character to were no doubt the remnant of Jews who were faithful to God at that time. Jesus showed them what the Father was like, and gave them the Father's message, and the Father bore witness to the truthfulness of Jesus' words by doing miracles through Him.

John 17:7-8

It was essential to the gospel message that the world understand that everything Jesus said and did represented God's truth, and God's love for us, in order for it to have its intended effect. This effect, in part, was mentioned in verse 3, "that they may know Thee." Knowing that Jesus' words and deeds represent the Father's words and deeds allows us to know God's character, and that He loves us, the essential grounds for us having eternal life, if we trust in His love for us. The other part of the intended effect of the gospel message, and in fact they are two inseparable aspects of the effect of the gospel on us who believe, is that we be sanctified in the present, in our lives, now, on earth. Jesus will expound on this in the following verses. That this message which His contemporary followers received and understood was also for us is made clear in verse 20.

John 17:9

Jesus begins by prefacing a request He's going to make to the Father with a few explanatory notes. He makes the actual request in verses 15 and 17. His first note is that He is asking for a particular predefined group, those of whom He spoke in verses 6-8. They were already faithful to the Father before they met Jesus, then they accepted words, keeping them, and understood that Jesus came from the Father. He makes it doubley clear that it is only this group by actually stating that He is not asking on behalf of anyone but them or what He calls "the world." (though later, in verse 20, He will explain that this group extends to those who come later, who believe like them. So, we have two categories of people spoken of here, the world and those who belong to the Father and the Son, and it is the latter that Jesus prays for.

John 17:10

Jesus makes it absolute, that He and the Father share ownership of all their possessions; the specific context here being faithful followers.

He states that He has been glorified in them. I think that the necessary implication of this is that when we receive Jesus' words and do them, we communicate His love to the world.

John 17:11

He just explained that He communicated the character of the Father to Their followers; now He states that He will be separated from them. He addresses the obvious problem: it is He who communicated the Father's love and brought them into a closer, "eternal life," relationship with Them, and now He's leaving; who will maintain it? Who will "keep them in Thy name?" He asks the Father to see to this. And the reason that He gives for this request is "that they may be one, even as We are."

Has He brought up a brand new subject, that of Christian unity? There is nothing in the context about Christian unity so far. If there was not a better explanation for these words in the context, we would have to strongly consider that He has brought up a new subject (after all, it's not totally unrelated); but there is a better explanation that is entirely within the scope of the subject matter of the prayer so far.

So far, all of His discussion has dealt with bringing men into a relationship with God the Father, and with Himself. In verse 6 He said He manifested the Father's name to the believers, and that they kept the Father's word. And now, He asks the Father to keep them in the Father's name. To stay within the scope of the subject matter of the context, we should assume that the purpose for the Father keeping them in His name would be the same purpose Jesus had for manifesting the Father's name to them in the first place, that is, to bring them into an eternal life relationship with them. With that in mind, the reason given for keeping them in the Father's name, "that they may be one," interpreted in the most direct and simple meaning, would be so that they may be one with the Father and Son. With this understanding, the final clause, "even as We are," rather than drawing a parallel between the Christian-to-Christian relationship, would be bringing the Christian into the Father-Son relationship so they may all be one, in love.

John 17:12

He continues with the subject of "keeping them in Thy name," the subject He was just talking about in verse 11. So the clause, "that they may be one," is sandwiched tightly between two statements about keeping them in His name. So we have no basis within the text to introduce the idea of Christian unity. In fact, it's starting to sound as though keeping them in His name is synonymous with them being one with Him.

He adds in verse 12 that He "guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled." Now, Judas had not physically died at this point in time; we know this because he is talked about in chapter 18, betraying Jesus. One possible interpretation would be that Jesus is speaking in a sort of "dramatic past tense," speaking of something that is about to happen as though it is happening now or has already happened. He does this in reference to Himself leaving the world, in verse 11, "And I am no more in the world," and in verse 12, "While I was with them." In the case of Himself leaving, this was nothing new, He had been making references to His death and to His going to the Father throughout His ministry. These references are recorded often in the Gospel of John, at least as early as chapter 2, sometimes with an explanation from John as to what He is referring. His listeners did not grasp Jesus' references at the time, but there is no room for confusion for the reader of John; these "dramatic past tense" references to future events are not a problem. This would not be so in the case of this single, unexplained reference to Judas perishing. So for this reason I think it is unlikely that Jesus means physical perishing in verse 12.

Throughout John's gospel, Jesus uses the terms "life" and "death" with reference to spiritual life and death, without any explanation that He is doing so, and He uses "life" and "eternal life" interchangeably. In chapter 17, we have His definition of eternal life as knowing God and Jesus, followed by an explanation of how Jesus provided for those who believed Him to know God, how He provided this by doing and saying what the Father told Him, which He called "manifesting [the Father's] name." And now He's asking the Father to keep them in His (the Father's) name. It is in this context that He says He has "guarded them, and not one of them has perished but the son of perdition." For this reason, I think the only compelling explanation of verse 12 is that it is speaking strictly about keeping people in a relationship with God, based on trust in His loving character.

Having said all of that, John 18:8-9 may contradict this view and require that we take 17:12 to be speaking of physical life. We may also consider a view that combines the two, as spiritual life tends to protect physical life.

One other possibility, which I mention just to be thorough, is that the words "but the son of perdition" are a parenthetical note from John, to acknowledge the historical fact in hindsight, but said with the understanding that this did not falsify the statement since he was not included with those being kept in the Father's name. That it is not always clear when Jesus' words end and John's begin may be supported by the text of chapter 3 in which verses 16-21 may be better attributed to John than Jesus, based on their style; and verses 31-36 may be better attributed to John (the author) than to John the Baptist, based on their style. There may be other examples as well.

John 17:13

Again He states that He is coming to the Father. Reiterating this communicates that He is still on the same topic; He is stringing several related ideas together. So, still speaking on the topic of the spiritual life relationship He has provided for believers, He says that the things He is now speaking, in His prayer to the Father, are so that we may have His joy made full in ourselves.

The reason I say He is referring to the things He is now praying, in chapter 17, is because chapter 16 concluded a different subject with a similar explanation of "these things I have spoken to you." Then, chapter 17 begins with "These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, "Father…". Chapter 18 begins with, "When Jesus had spoken these words, He went forth…". There is a very clear and distinct division to which Jesus may be referring, and that is His prayer that comprises chapter 17.

Because He said, "and speak these things in the world," I think we can say that we are to receive His joy as a result of what we learn from reading His prayer, as opposed to our joy resulting simply from the Father answering His prayer. But it could be taken the other way. I'm not sure of this.

If it is by learning from the words in this prayer that we are to receive His joy made full in ourselves, I think it stands to reason, because this prayer gives an explanation of how God brings us into a loving relationship with Himself and keeps us from evil, that this knowledge is invaluable in attaining these goals.

It is also interesting to note that this would not be the only time Jesus prayed something for the purpose of the benefit it would have to those who were listening. In John 11:41-42 He not only does just that, but He explicitly states that this is His reason for doing so.

We have another example of Jesus speaking something to His followers so that His joy may be in them, in John 15: 11. There are many other similar examples we could cite, but to understand and accept what Jesus is saying here, we need only to acknowledge two themes that are irrefutably given throughout the scriptures, that God desires our joy, and that God changes those who trust Him by communicating truth to them.

John 17:14

He has, up to this point, established a strong division between God's dwelling place and ours.

  • "Lifting up His eyes to heaven" (v.1)
  • God gave Jesus authority over all mankind. (v.2)
  • Eternal life is knowing God. (v.3)
    and Him whom He had sent (v.3)
    (In both cases, life comes from above.)
  • He glorified the Father on earth, where He had presumably not been glorified this way before. (v.4)
  • He speaks of the Father glorifying Him on earth as in Heaven. (v.5)
  • Jesus manifested God's character on earth. Earth is not God's home. (v.6)
  • People belong to God, rather than to the world, when they receive and believe in Jesus as having come from God, and keep God's word. (v.6-8)

In fact, the division between God's dwelling place and ours is a theme of the Gospel of John. The prologue tells this story clearly. And there are many clear references throughout John (3:3-19; 6:33-35; 8:23, etc.)

So we have three unique categories of place/belonging combinations.

  1. Those who are in heaven and are of heaven.
  2. Those who are in the world and are not of the world, but of heaven.
  3. Those who are in the world and are of the world.

Who are in each of the three categories?

  • God the Father is in the first category. He never left heaven. He always loved perfectly (He is holy), so He is "of heaven."
  • Jesus was in the first category, changed to the second, and was about to change back to the first. He came from heaven to earth and back to heaven. He never stopped keeping the Father's word, so He was "not of the world."
  • The majority of people in the world are in the third category. They are in the world, and they do not keep God's word, so they belong to the world. They are "of the world."
  • Those people who are in the world but keep God's word, Jesus says belong in the second category with Himself. They are "not of the world."

Notice what it is that determines whether someone belongs to the world or to heaven. Jesus says here in verse 14, "I have given them Thy word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of this world, even as I am not of this world." The beginning of this verse integrates the latter part with the message of the entire prayer thus far, which, as I think I have established already, is about Jesus communicating God's loving character to the world through His words and deeds, especially His death.

Those who are of heaven received God's words. Those who are of the world hated them—they rejected God's word.

John 17:15

He begins by saying what He is not asking. He is not asking the Father to take them out of the world. Taking them out of the world would make sense since He just explained that they don't belong to the world; they belong to the Father and Son; and He is leaving the world and coming to the Father. What's more, the world hates them. These are very compelling reasons that they should go with Jesus. I think He will address this issue in verse 18.

He asks the Father "to keep them from the evil (one)."

(There is disagreement between translators and commentators about whether the last word here, "evil," should be translated as "evil" or "evil one." I think this is an interesting question, but I don't know which is correct, and I don't think it impacts my understanding of this verse and passage.)

The question is whether we are to understand that He wants the Father to protect them from the destructive effect of evil acting upon them, causing them to suffer or die; or from the influence of evil on their hearts to do evil themselves. The context so far has been about communicating the truth about God's love to the faithful; then, as He began to make His request, He drew a contrast between the world and His followers, based on their response to His word. And He made a reference to Judas perishing, which I figured was most likely a spiritual perishing. So, all of the context so far has dealt with the spiritual life and well-being, rather than the physical. Nonetheless, since He is now leaving, He may have a new concern for protecting them physically. But then, the rest of the context, after this statement, to the end of the chapter, seems to be about the spiritual life, not the physical.

What's more, if He was asking that they be protected from the effects of evil, the request seems to have gone largely unanswered, since, as tradition has it, 11 of the 12 apostles were martyred. In fact, Jesus predicted their persecution in 15:18-21.

The request to "keep them from evil" seems to be a different aspect of the same request He made in verse 11, "keep them in Thy name." 

John 17:16

This is a repeat, verbatim, of a statement He made only two verses earlier, and a concept that He has been developing since verse 6. Repeating for emphasis hardly makes sense in a short passage like this that contains many statements of equal or greater importance. The only purpose I can see for this repetition is to communicate that He is continuing to develop thoughts related to this on; either the previous, the next, or both continue to relate to this thought.

John 17:17

These are two short statements; and they are not bringing new ideas to this passage. But they are key in that they reword and combine ideas previously mentioned in a way to make their relationship to each other clear.

Sanctification is setting something apart for a special purpose, usually a higher purpose. Our present sanctification deals with setting us apart from sin to live holy, loving lives in obedience to God's word; and not just from sin to holiness, but from lives lived according to the principles of the world, to lives lived for God's higher purposes, in His service. This is what I have concluded from my studies of the use of this word throughout the Bible.

Jesus had already expressed all of the ideas in verse 17. He said that we are not of the world (v.14 and 16), but belong to God (v.6 and 10), and this is because we have received (v.8) and kept (v.6) His word; and He asked the Father to keep us in His name (v.11). But here it is expressed concisely, and the concepts packaged together and attached to the word "sanctify," which He will make use of in verse 19.

John 17:18

In between two statements about us being sanctified in the truth, He says that He has sent us into the world as the Father sent Him. So what kind of sending is this? I think it must be important, since sanctifying is setting apart for a higher purpose. "As," here, means "in the same manner that." By itself, this is vague; its meaning must be gleaned from the context. A ruler may say, "As I sent battalions to fight on the northern border, so I send my assistant to fetch my coffee." The "as" in this context can refer to little more than the fact that both were sent. But if he said, "As I sent battalions to fight on the northern border, so I send battalions to the southern border," he may be referring to any number of specifics about the manner in which he sent them—purpose, number, a detailed plan of attack. We would need to refer to other statements he had made to know.

To know in what manner we are sent, we would do well to consult all teaching related to this subject throughout the entire Bible (and there is teaching on this subject through the entire Bible); but I think we can get the heart of the manner from the three verses that follow.

John 17:19

Jesus sanctifies Himself. He does not set Himself apart from sin to live in holiness, for He is sinless and has never stopped loving. But He sets Himself apart for a higher purpose, in God's service. He chooses to die for us. The context of this entire prayer, from His statement, "Father, the hour has come…," to the last verse where He refers to His death again, saying, "I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known…" deals with the benefit we will receive from the knowledge of God we gain by Jesus dying. He set Himself apart for this higher purpose!

And what is the benefit we will receive from His sanctifying Himself, that is, from His death? He goes on, "that they themselves may be sanctified in the truth." He has been requesting that we be kept in His name (v.11), kept from the evil (v.15), and sanctified in the truth of God's word (v.17). The benefit we receive from His death is that His death is an influence on our minds and hearts to stop sinning and live loving lives in obedience to God's word.

John 17:20

This takes everything in this prayer (for the prayer is made up of interconnected and interdependent ideas) that applied to his followers at that time, and applies it to all who will ever hear the gospel. It also constitutes their (and our) being sent into the world (v.18).

This is monumental! In this prayer we have learned that eternal life and being freed from evil result from trusting Jesus' message, contained in His death, about the Father's love for us. And now that is applied to us spreading the word about Jesus. I would say that this too constitutes being set apart for a higher purpose.

I think it follows that as Jesus' sanctifying Himself, to live and die in obedience to God, was for our sanctification (v.19), so our sanctifying ourselves (1 Peter 3:15), or submitting ourselves to Jesus' sanctifying work, to live in loving holiness and to tell the gospel to the world will result in their sanctification.

Such a great purpose being entrusted to us may sound disturbing because it sounds like we are playing the role of savior, doing the same work that Jesus did. Participating in God's work may sound like concepts taught in eastern philosophy or in some cults. But this is not a perpetual cycle like that of eastern philosophy or the Mormon belief in a perpetual progression of Gods. No, this structure is the same as a tree, or a vine, with one root and trunk system, and many branches with leaves and fruit. There is one true God, and His only begotten Son whom He sent into the world, that the world might live through Him (John 17:3; 3: 16; 1 John 4:9; 5:20); and then there is the rest of us. We can participate in His life-giving work by spreading the gospel, but the gospel is, and always will be, about Him, who was sinless, and "existed in the form of God" (Philippians 2:6), and "is the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20), dying for us, while we were still sinners.

John 17:21

Here we come to the second verse that is often understood to be about Christian unity. By this point, the context is overwhelmingly clear that Jesus is speaking about bringing us into unity with Himself and the Father. But even without any context, these words are unambiguous, "that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us;". The language does not even hint at another interpretation. Only if we import another concept and impose it on this verse, can we understand this verse to be speaking of Christian unity.

Considering again the context of the whole prayer, we see that the next idea, "that the world may believe in Me through their word;" parallels the topic of His followers at that time believing that the Father sent Him because of His unity, of His message and His love, with the Father. Then He speaks of sending us into the world, sanctifying us, and therefore by the logical property of transitivity (if a=b and b=c, then a=c), the world may believe that the Father sent Him as a result of our word (if we are one with Them), in the same manner that His oneness with the Father served to enable His followers to believe that the Father sent Him.

John 17: 22-23

He continues with the same idea, repeating almost the same words, but adding a layer this time. This time He speaks of glory playing a role in affecting our unity with the Father and Son. My understanding of this is that what He has been saying since the start of this prayer, that His living and dying and speaking the truth from God teaches us of God's love for us and, if we receive it, and trust in it, and live by it, we know God, and stay in a loving relationship with Him, and the world knows and understands. 

John 17:24

I'm not sure how to understand this verse. I welcome your input (as I do with all my opinions, even if I'm very sure of my view). I can't determine to what time He is referring, nor to what location. The location options depend upon the time. The time could refer to the ongoing present in this present age, or it could refer to the future age, which we could refer to as "when we all get to heaven."

  • In the Father's love, perceiving the truth.
  • Unhindered perception of the Father's love.
  • Physically near Jesus.

If it is referring to the present, the "where" is not literal spatial location. He wants us to be in the Father's love, like He is. After He was crucified, and rose again, and spent 40 days teaching His apostles (Acts 1:3), He was taken up into heaven (Acts 1:11), where He sits at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). The description of His being taken up into heaven is clearly literal, but His being seated at the right hand of the Father cannot be literal, because the Father does not have a literal right hand (Deuteronomy 4:13-19). And there is no indication in any of those passages, about Jesus being at the right hand of the Father, that we are with Him, except in some figurative sense, as in Ephesians 2:6 where it states that we are (present tense) seated with God the Father in the heavenly places

But we do have examples of Jesus speaking of being with us in this present life in a significant way. It does not involve the presence of His physical body, so I say it is not literal, but Jesus uses language associated with location. In John chapter 14, we have several references to being with Jesus in this present age. Though the first (v.3) is usually understood to be about the next age, the rest (in v.18-28) are unmistakably about the present age. I think it makes sense to interpret verse 3 as being about the present as well, but that's a question for another time. The context being the same writer, the same book, and the same speaker as these references in John 14 strengthens the "present age" interpretation of John 17:24.

Another point supporting the present age understanding of John 17:24 is the other instances of the language, "behold my glory," which refer to the present age. John 1:14 says that they "beheld His glory" when He "became flesh, and dwelt among" them. First John 1:1 speaks again of them beholding Jesus, and that forming the foundation for them to tell us truths (in the verses that follow) that might result in our having fellowship with the Father and the Son. Again, in both of these instances, the context is strong.

(It is also worth considering that He may have been requesting of the Father that His disciples witness the crucifixion, since this was to be the strongest display of His glory, and it is no doubt the glory He referred to in the first verse of this prayer. This interpretation of the verse seems perfectly consistent with the text and context; and I cannot think of any reason to discount it.)

The arguments that support the idea that He is referring to the future are very strong. "Where" can be taken literally. Though we don't expect to find Jesus sitting at the literal right hand of the Father when we see Him in the next age, I think we can expect to see Him literally in His resurrected physical body.

That the topic of the next age would fit in the context of this prayer is reasonable since He has spoken of the fact that He is leaving this world and His disciples are remaining in the world. The complete future resolution to this separation would be a valid topic for Him to be addressing at this particular point.

Though I have given what I think are good reasons to understand Jesus' use of "glorify" and "glory" as applying to His life and death on earth in the present age, "glorification" is very commonly thought to refer to the future resurrected state in the cases of both Jesus and His followers. His desire, which He expresses here, "that they may behold My glory," will certainly be fulfilled in a greater way in the next age when we see Him face to face, unhindered by our weakened bodies and partial understanding. 

I suppose, if I had to choose, I would side with interpreting verse 24 as being about His desire for us to be in the Father's love, as He is, in this present age, for two reasons:

  1. The entire prayer seems to be about this very thing.
  2. The use of the phrase "behold My glory" having a present age application in its other uses by John.

John 17:25-26

These verses, together, sum up the entire prayer and focus it on its end goals: Jesus making the Father known is so that we may have God's love in us and have Jesus in us. "That the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them." This is no different than a summary of the gospel message itself. And this puts a fine point on the fact that this prayer is not about "Christian unity," but about our being united with God the Father and His Son Jesus, in love.

1See my word study addendum to the Metaphors of John Bible study.